The best LCS in history have been fraught with drama as Fall Classic hopefuls lay it all on the line.
In 1980, Philadelphia remained the only MLB franchise since 1903, the year of the inaugural Fall Classic, that had never won it all. But that season, they overcame a 2-1 deficit in the NLCS to subdue Houston and set up a meeting with the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. The Astros players struggled mightily to accept their defeat.
"That's the first time I ever saw 25 players crying in the clubhouse," says Art Howe, then Houston's first baseman. "I believe we had the better team, but you've got to give the Phillies credit. They were down, 5-2, heading into the eighth inning [of Game 5] against Nolan Ryan and won."
Joe Niekro had pitched in Game 163 to help secure the Astros a playoff berth, so the ace was unavailable for Game 1 against the Phils. Although Ken Forsch gave it his all with eight solid innings, a two-run Greg Luzinski homer provided the winning margin in a 3-1 Phils victory at Veterans Stadium. One night later, the Astros blew open a tie game with four runs in the 10th to even the series.
The Phillies would have to play the next three games in Houston's Astrodome, though, and Niekro was waiting in the wings for Game 3. The knuckleballer threw 10 shutout innings and scattered six hits, but Houston's bats didn't back up his efforts until the bottom of the 11th, when Denny Walling lifted a walk-off sacrifice fly. The Astros' 1-0 victory put them in great position to reach the World Series for the first time in their history.
"We felt like we were going to win it," Howe says. "We were finally going to go to the World Series."
After trailing early in Game 4, Philadelphia ultimately triumphed in the 10th on RBI doubles by Luzinski and Manny Trillo. The Luzinski two-bagger scored Pete Rose, who reprised his 1970 All-Star steamrolling of Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse by running through Bruce Bochy.
Houston still seemed poised to come away victorious, as it held a 5-2 lead heading into the eighth inning of Game 5 with Ryan on the mound. But the Phillies stormed back yet again, and although Houston matched them to force extras, an RBI double in the 10th by Garry Maddox gave the visitors the series-clinching run in an 8-7 triumph.
"There was a lot of stress in that fifth game," says Christenson, the Phillies' Game 3 starter. "Those were some long innings. A lot of us remember the Houston series more than we do the World Series."
The Phillies' comebacks and the memorable drama that punctuated the 1980 postseason were remarkable, but neither matched the theater provided by Boston during its win over New York in 2004. New York had come out on top of a seven-game ALCS matchup the year prior, so when the Bronx Bombers routed the Red Sox, 19-8, in the third game of the '04 rematch, fans throughout New England began suffering from flashbacks.
But Boston battled through a pair of extra-inning contests, winning the fourth game in 12 frames and the fifth in 14 to bring a trip to the World Series within reach. Curt Schilling's mythic "Bloody Sock" performance in Game 6 tied things up, and a grand slam by Johnny Damon keyed a cathartic 10-3 rout in the decider to help Boston become the first team ever to overcome a 3-games-to-none playoff series deficit. "We stuck together and erased history," Damon said.
Six years after their crushing loss to the Phillies, the Astros were back in the NLCS with a vengeance. This time, they were facing the Mets, who had run away with the 1986 NL East title. Houston held its own, splitting the first two games, but the Mets would take the lead after Game 5. In Game 6, the Mets needed to score three runs in the top of the ninth to force extra innings and prevent a deciding Game 7. After Mookie Wilson collected an RBI single, Hernandez brought him home with a double. Three batters later, the first baseman crossed the plate with the tying run.
After trading runs in the 14th, the Mets added three two innings later to take a 7-4 advantage. Although Houston rallied and narrowed the gap to 7-6, New York reliever Jesse Orosco, who was exhausted after winning two games earlier in the series, struck out Kevin Bass on a 3-2 curveball to win the game and send the Mets to the Fall Classic against Boston.
"It was my first time pitching in a playoff series, and I thought it was more emotionally draining and harder work than the World Series," Orosco said.
While the Mets and Astros were staging their 16-round title fight, Boston and California were brawling for supremacy of their own league, and the clash featured one of the most dramatic moments in LCS history.
The Angels led the ALCS, 3 games to 1, and held a 5-4 lead with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 5. Pitcher Donnie Moore had two strikes on Boston's Dave Henderson, and California fans were anticipating the first World Series appearance in franchise history. But Henderson drilled a two-run home run to give Boston the lead and turn the tide of the series, as Boston would win the final two games by a combined score of 18-5.
"People bring up the home run all the time, and I still think about it a lot," Henderson said in 2004. "How can I not think about it? It changed my life. It turned my career around."
Aaron Boone's legend sure got a boost from his Game 7 homer, which lifted New York over Boston in 2003.
The two teams were meeting for the 26th time that year (19 regular-season matchups, seven ALCS) and Boston was holding a two-run lead in the eighth inning with Pedro Martinez on the mound. But with the ace's pitch count pushing 120, the Yankees mounted a comeback and sent the game into extras.
Boone led off the 11th by smashing the first pitch he saw from knuckleballer Tim Wakefield over the left-field fence, and the Yankees had a 6-5 win, an American League pennant and another trip to the World Series.
"This is the best," Yankees manager Joe Torre said after the game. "To come here and play against the Red Sox and beat our rival like we did, it couldn't be any more satisfying. This is the sweetest taste of all for me."